Tall overgrown grass protect her from the harsh autumn sun and a gnarly old frangipani tree drops quiet blossoms on her. Red and yellow canna flowers throw rainbow shades on her stony surface and inquisitive neighbours living in one of the surrounding high rises, pay her absentminded glances every now and then. She sleeps there in eternal slumber, hidden from public eye and forgotten by most except for the stray dogs who give her company each night. Meet Toru a.k.a Tarulata Datta, one of India’s most brilliant bilingual poetess and literary figures.
Her prowess lay in her sensitive and wonderful word imagery and she wrote in French and English during a time, when good Indian women did not learn foreign languages for fear of widowhood. Born on 4th of March, 1856, Toru was the youngest of three children and her parents, Govin Chunder Dutt and mother Kshetramoni, were converted Christians. They belonged to the intellectually progressive Rambagan Dutt family and after her early years in Kolkata, she traveled with her sister, Aru to France, Italy and England.
That was in the year 1869 when for the first time in her life, young Toru received formal schooling, and that too, in France. Being a natural linguist, she mastered the language quickly and even started writing short pieces French. These were later published posthumously and her Le Journal de Mademoiselle d’Arvers (considered the first novel in French by an Indian writer), Bianca or the Young Spanish Maiden (probably the first novel in English by an Indian woman writer), Ancient Ballads, Legends of Hindusthan along with an unfinished volume of original poems in English finally saw the light of the day. Only her, ‘A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields’ was published during her time and just like the creator, they had remained unsung until after her death.
Toru Dutt had died from consumption at a tender age of 21 and her untimely death had left a huge loss in Indian literature. A very gifted writer, Toru had also pursued higher studies in French at Cambridge, which too had been unheard of during that time and she has been accredited for many translations and adaptations from Sanskrit literature. Considered as one of the most unsung, yet prolific stars of Indian literature, it had been the well known English author and critic, Edmund Gosse who had paid Toru Dutt, the most fitting tribute in his introductory note to her posthumously published collections of Sanskrit translations. He had written, “She brought with her from Europe a store of knowledge that would have sufficed to make an English or French girl seem learned, but which in her case was simply miraculous.” and coming from the horse’s mouth it could not have been closest to the truth.
Unfortunately, despite all her achievements, for most Indians and even Bengalis (natives of West Bengal, from where she had hailed), the name Toru Dutt does not even ring a bell and by the state of her grave, it is not hard to understand why. Tucked away next to The Leprosy Mission at Manicktala, Kolkata, the Rambagan Dutt family graves are in an appalling condition. They lie in Manicktala Christian Cemetery and it is a small, nondescript square piece of land. Overgrown with waist high weeds, unkempt and totally neglected, on sunny days drying laundry flutter over the headstones like valiant flags. Surprisingly, many residents of the area are not even aware of the cemetery’s existence and recently the state officials have given the Dutt family graves, a face lift.
Bordered by a plain black stone wall, the Rambagan Dutts now lie in a spot away from the others and simple marble tablets of each member are embedded on one big concrete slab. Needless to say, the neglect and indignity meted out to such a prodigal daughter of Bengal is very disheartening and I am thankful to Streets of Calcutta for introducing me to her forgotten glory. It had been a part of a lovely city walk, which had highlighted noted Bengali greats of yesteryears and the programme had been the perfect prelude to the Bengali Literature Festival held at Oxford Bookstore on 6th October 2015. My knowledge of Bengali literature is rudimentary and thus the daunting task of making the soul of the walk come alive, had fallen on the shoulders of my fellow attendees. They all had been noted Kolkata bloggers and the team had included Subhadip Mukherjee, Indrajit Das, Deepanjan Ghosh to name just a few. The walk had been lead by Amitabha Gupta and award winning photographer Soumya Shankar Ghoshal had been a part of the team too.
It had been a great morning and the city walk had just been a part of it. Most of the times, I miss out on socializing with fellow bloggers and friends due to my hectic schedule and that autumn morning walk had taken care of all the pent up interactions. Kolkata is teeming with heritage jewels and many of them are related to literature or philanthropy. Many great men and women have been born and brought up in the city and they have all left their marks in form of events, buildings, rebellious publications and collections. Raja Rammohan Roy had been one such giant and the quirky Kolkata Police Museum had stood at this social reformer’s erstwhile home. The museum, which does not figure in tourist maps is supposedly very interesting and because of its display of caches of weapons, forensic files and many controversial documents, it is quite a treasure chest. (for more click here)
Another prominent Bengali of that time had been Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, an eminent scholar, upon whose bold campaign, East India Company had enabled the Hindu Widow’s Remarriage Act in 1856. For centuries Hindu widows had faced countless evils like sati (self immolation on husband’s pyre), abstinence from everything pleasurable including colours, festivities, meat etc and that event had changed the course of social life in India. It had been a very historical moment and the first widow bride had been a very young child. It is said that the groom had to go into hiding for a few days before his wedding and the entire lane which had housed the venue, had to be cordoned off by British armed forces to prevent civil riots.
We had walked along that historic lane to relive the grand event and the building of the auspicious course changing wedding had welcomed us with blasts from the past. Old heavy iron grills and name plates had been coated with feathery grime and cool marble tiles had check marked the inner courtyard. Although, now sliced off and sold to many individual owners, the grand old building had not lost its character and droopy banyan trees had only added to its charm. It had been one of the many important landmarks highlighted during the literary walk and I had the feeling of having fallen down Alice’s magic hole. Events, beauty and history had rushed to me at breakneck speed and I had soon felt overwhelmed by the intensity of heritage crammed in every part of Kolkata.
Indian history seemed to have made the city its favourite playground and grand old crumbling buildings, picturesque narrow lanes, hand pulled rickshaws, graffiti etched tree walls and rickety bamboo scaffolding of the upcoming Durga festival pandals (temporary shrines) had all merged into one colourful kaleidoscope. Kolkata had never seemed more beautiful and I had reveled in its glorious, bold memories. The old grand dame of British Raj holds too many precious secrets in her bosom and the difficult to love at first sight city, only tells her tales to patient, inquisitive ears.
That 6th October morning, she had opened up her heart to us, some of her most ardent lovers and we had paid her back with a tribute to Bengali literature. On that day, we had celebrated Calcutta (Kolkata) with her most quintessential and endearing qualities..i.e cha (tea), adda (gossip) and sahitya (literature) and for true blue Bengalis, fun cannot get better than that.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE.